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Law
Tribes head to court to protect sacred peaks


A federal appeals court in San Francisco, California, will be the site of a major gathering next week as tribes and Native activists seek to protect one of their most important sacred sites.

The Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and other tribes in the Southwest are headed to court to stop the expansion of a ski resort in the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona. They say the resort's use of reclaimed wastewater to make snow will desecrate their place of worship.

"The integrity of our culture and our way of life is under attack," said Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. in a letter about the case. "When the sanctity of one sacred mountain is compromised, the entire system is compromised. It is our job �- as stewards of the environment in which we live �- to protect these mountains for future generations to come."

At the hearing next Thursday, the tribes will ask the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a federal judge's decision to allow snowmaking in the peaks. They are arguing that the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the land where the ski resort is located, violated their religious rights.

In a 62-page ruling this past February, U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt ruled against a coalition led by the Navajo Nation. He said the tribes will still be able to practice their religion in the sacred peaks despite the presence of the Snowbowl ski resort.

"The decision does not coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs nor does it penalize anyone for practicing his or her religion," Rosenblatt wrote.

His ruling came despite an admission by the Forest Service that the use of reclaimed wastewater "must be considered as a potentially irreversible impact to these tribes' religious and cultural foundations."

In Navajo religion, the peaks are considered the very essence of the tribe. "The Bible is what makes a Christian, the mountain is what makes a Navajo," Shirley testified during the court trial.

For the Hopi, the peaks are home to spiritual beings who are part of the tribe's religious practices. Hopi elders testified that the use of wastewater would drive away the deities.

Others, like the Apache of Arizona and the Zuni of New Mexico, make pilgrimages to the peaks to collect herbs and make offerings. The mountains are an important part of life to nearly two dozen tribes.

The significance of the site and the court battle prompted the Save the Peaks coalition to organize a caravan and rally to California. On Wednesday of next week, tribal members and their supporters will hold a ceremonial gathering at Yerba Buena Park in San Francisco. A companion vigil will be held at Heritage Square in Flagstaff, Arizona, the town closest to the peaks.

On Thursday, the day of the hearing, there will be a prayer vigil at Dolores Park. Participants will then march to the 9th Circuit courthouse at 95th Seventh Street.

As the oral arguments take place, some tribal members will maintain a vigil outside the building. A press conference is scheduled at noon, following the conclusion of the hearing.

For more information about next week's events, visit the Save the Peaks Coalition at http://www.savethepeaks.org.

Appeals Court Documents:
Opening Brief [Word DOC] | Reply Brief [Word DOC]

Lower Court Decision:
Navajo Nation v. US Forest Service (January 11, 2006)

Approval Documents:
Final Environmental Impact Statement for Arizona Snowbowl Facilities Improvement | Forest Service Approves Snowmaking at Arizona Snowbowl

Relevant Links:
Save the Peaks Coalition - http://www.savethepeaks.org
Coconino National Forest - http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/index.shtml